"History," according to the epigraph to Adam Thorpe's new novel, "is what remains when myth has left the room". It's a quote from a writer called Nicholas Mallinson, and it follows a much longer one, about "Poor Tom", the "swimming frog", from King Lear. History and madness, then: familiar themes in Thorpe's work, which run like fault-lines through the archeological layers of his fiction, from the dazzling slice-of-English rural history in his debut novel, Ulverton, to his almost painfully astute dissection of Blair's Britain, Between Each Breath.
Nicholas Mallinson is a fiction, too – a character in Thorpe's ninth novel. A 53-year-old lecturer in history at Cambridge, who suffers from "acid rising from his stressed stomach, churned by... his failure to be appointed a professor", he takes his much younger wife and three daughters on a sabbatical to a remote farmhouse in the Languedoc. There, untroubled by wranglings over pay scales and the successes of his rivals, he will write his book on the politics of oil in the Chad basin, feel his stomach unknot and watch his children blossom.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idyll proves less idyllic than anticipated. The lawn which the farmhouse's rich art-dealer owners, Alan and Lucy Sandler, have instructed caretaker/gardener Jean-Luc to grow stubbornly refuses to materialise, and is attacked every night by wild boars. The alarm on the swimming-pool, which, in spite of the toxic cocktail of chemicals poured in daily, remains a murky green, doesn't work. Local hunters rampage through the grounds. And hints soon emerge of dark happenings in the farmhouse's past, including a Nazi shooting and a recent death.
The Nazi shooting, it soon becomes clear, was of Jean-Luc's uncle, and the accident of his rival, local builder Raoul. Both events hang heavily over the narrative in the bulky shape of Jean-Luc who, when he isn't lurking around the grounds taking pictures of the little girls and their mother's skinny-dips, is tormenting his invalid mother, constructing an array of Blue Peter-type voodoo artefacts and chatting to his dead uncle.
Trouble explodes, and the assembled cast are brought together in a clash of stereotypes and cultures. Thorpe is a superb writer and at times a masterful one. His social observation is razor-sharp. His portrayal of relationships – the "salmon love-leap" of a father talking to his child, the mingled exasperation, affection and contempt of family members – is beautifully done. His exploration of history is ingeniously interwoven.
The Standing Pool is not, however, one of his strongest novels. The writing, so often poetic, occasionally leans towards repetition and the symbolism is, at times, over-laden. Those ominous hints are a little too wide-ranging, and the tedium of Jean-Luc's life rather too effectively conveyed. For once, this brilliant writer appears to have lost his lightness of touch. I've no doubt, however, that he'll get it back.
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